Big Data – the most valuable resource for Smart Cities?

Big Data – What and why?

If you’ve read the recent attempts of tech magazines and blogs to predict the future, you may already be tired of hearing about the importance of big data. Although simple sounding, the phrase ‘big data’ doesn’t seem to mean much to most people, sounding more like a buzzword used to fill columns. Yet big data is perhaps the most important resource to cities looking to intelligently tackle the challenges of urban management in the future. Understanding a bit more about the ‘data revolution’ is integral to the management of true smart cities. This need is especially pressing, given that the transition towards urban living in the modern world is gathering pace – up from 54% in 2014, 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.

So, what is ‘big data’, when speaking in the context of urban management? Put simply, the near universal use of social networks and other digital profiles across the globe, the demand for free WiFi as an essential public service, as well as the advent of ‘Internet of Things’ technology (connecting devices to dashboards of information) has offered up a whole new universe of data about the way towns and cities are used by their citizens. In theory, this should allow councils to make informed decisions about ways to improve their localities for the people who live there, and even (as has been trialled with great success in several global cities already), offer more direct democratic input on key local issues to residents.
But while the new world of accessible information is amazing on one hand, it’s a double-edged sword. While harnessing all this information is an exciting new development, it’s an entirely different challenge to be able to monitor and use that information effectively. Only smart cities that manage the challenge of using big data-driven insights in meaningful ways will really reap the benefits modern technology can offer for municipalities, local businesses and citizens alike.

How Big Data Can Be Used To Improve City Management

Two key challenges define the usage of big data in city management at present. The first is the techno-centric vision of a city full of sensors to register useful information about the everyday actions and demands of citizens. This ‘quantified city’ vision would see the greatest challenges of urban areas tackled intelligently by using data, to name just a few examples:

• The conservation of additional energy by dimming streetlamps in areas where sensors detect no footfall, helping cities meet ‘green’ targets for environmental sustainability.
• Traffic reduction (a key concern, what with urban populations growing exponentially) by guiding drivers to vacated space. This has the concomitant benefit of reducing pollution caused by exhaust fumes as drivers idle around cities in search of the elusive empty spot.
• Optimisation of routes for public transport and municipal vehicles, with speed, positioning, and fuel count all tracked in relation to current traffic levels across the city, saving both energy and time.
Useful information like this and many, many others could be brought together in one central dashboard, accessible in real-time to council decision-makers in a spectacular city ‘control room’. While once the preserve of science fiction, the astonishing rate of technological progression and the abundance of data made collectible by connected devices has already seen pioneering local authorities such as Edinburgh City Council move ever closer to this goal.

The second challenge looks to share the responsibility of urban management with those who are most directly affected by its functions: the citizens themselves. To do so, it must open up key data to citizens, placing at their disposition services and applications through which they can become involved in the day-to-day management of the city, contributing to its projects and developing new practices collaboratively. In this way, a city can become a truly democratic ‘laboratory’ for the management of urban spaces. This would form an ecosystem particularly favourable to start-ups who may find opportunity to innovate in the ‘problem areas’ facing a council, which in turn makes a city that is more attractive to talented jobseekers. Cities which have already innovated in this area include Seoul, which has an app that uses geo-localisation to deliver democratic decisions to those most affected by them – citizens are able to vote on pressing local issues, suggest new priorities to the municipal government, and complain about areas of concern.
Although on the face of it, these two outlined goals may seem to differ – one seeks to deliver more useful data to experienced public decision-makers, the other to open that data to the citizens themselves – we feel that a true Smart City needn’t limit itself to one or the other of these models. Instead, they must converge to form a truly collaborative, connected approach – one in which the Smart City project helps harness big data as a tool of transformation and reinvention, rather than an end in and of itself. The true value of big data is in its possibility for influencing city policy, and the day-to-day lives and operations of citizens, public services, and businesses. Harnessing raw data alone without a correct framework to decipher it and share it will not deliver optimal results.

The Smart Strategy For Harnessing – And Using – Big Data

To bring about a truly smart transformation, first councils will need to prepare to collect the kind of data that will be useful to them. This might involve the installation of sensors to capture useful information, as well as logging information, where available, from internal city services, urban operators, and local businesses. But the second – and at least equally as important – step is to democratise the data. Councils must be able to centralise the raw data, place it into easily understandable models and metrics, and then make it available to all parties – be they citizens, businesses, or city services – who can use it to create value through the unique insight they can provide.

As providers of the only integrated connectivity, data, communications and engagement platform for towns and cities, IntechnologyWiFi can help you harness Big Data and bring the ‘Smart City’ concept to life. Our smart digital infrastructure, the ‘Connected City Platform’, creates a secure and safe platform for consumers, businesses, and technologies to engage and interact with each other, allowing local authorities to benefit from data-driven insights using a robust information analytics engine. To find out more about how to use big data to confidently face the economic, social, and environmental challenges of the future, please get in touch.

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Whether you’re a local authority looking to provide public WiFi or seeking a connectivity solution for Smart Cities, the IoT or 5G / Small Cells in your town or city, or if you are interested in partnering with us around the Connected City Platform in any of our forthcoming town and city roll-outs, we’d love to explain more about who we are and what we do.

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